It looks like it might be time to start taking notice of Honor.
It’s one of two mid-tier players in the smartphone market right now offering great specs for a low cost (the other being OnePlus), and the Honor 9 is another key handset in the mini-battle between the two brands.
From the attractive design to the impressive spec sheet, this is a phone that needs to be considered as a real alternative to flagships such as the iPhone 7 and Samsung Galaxy S8 – not least because it costs nearly half the price.
It’s essentially the Huawei P10 with a few tweaks and a different skin… and for a lot less money.
As the flagship phone for this brand, this is the best we’re going to get for 2017 – so does the Honor 9 do enough to maintain the upward momentum of the Chinese company?
Honor 9 price
The Honor 9 is coming to the UK for £379.99 (around $485 / AU$640) SIM-free, but will also be available on Three as a network exclusive. At this time there are no plans to bring the handset to the US (and Australia is unconfirmed at time of writing).
The Honor line of handsets has evolved rapidly over the years, from a rudimentary design to something that can compete with the best on the market, at least in terms of the way the phone looks.
Curved edges front and back, combined with an attractive reflective-color finish and Gorilla Glass 3 on the front and back to withstand smashes, make the Honor 9 look as premium as far more expensive phones.
The way the light catches the blue, black or grey rear of the phone is rather eye-catching, with the light ‘cracking’ down the back and offering slightly different shimmers of the hue you’ve chosen.
It’s not quite as impressive as the HTC U11, which has a similarly curved back but a two-tone color scheme that changes as you tilt the phone – but again, the Honor 9 is nearly half the price.
It feels rather light in the hand, but not poorly made. There’s no flex in the device anywhere and the glass back feels solid enough – the 15-layered, polished material (we’re not sure exactly what material has been layered 15 times though) has a very impressive glow.
The fingerprint scanner isn’t on the back this time to mess up the aesthetic of the phone, with that sensor moved to the front of the phone as a lozenge under the screen – it doesn’t move, but for the phone with the smaller screen, this is where Honor thinks it will fit best.
It kind of makes sense. At this point, having the fingerprint scanner on the front or the back is a case of personal preference, as both work well. However, we do miss the fact that it’s a convenience key, as that’s not as easy to use when the scanner is on the front.
It’s testament to the design of the Honor 9 that there’s a dual-sensor camera on the rear of the phone, yet there’s no protrusion that causes the phone to wobble when placed on the table.
While we’re in favour of a better camera that sticks out over a poorer sensor that fits in, the Honor 9 seems like it’s got the best of both worlds, which is an impressive move.
There’s only one speaker on the Honor 9 and it fires downwards, next to the headphone jack and USB Type-C connector – it’s loud enough, and is okay in a pinch, but it’s not the perfect solution for watching media.
However, with the headphones connected things are supposed to be a lot better, as Honor has co-opted the Huawei Histen 3D technology to improve the sound quality, and tuned things to be ‘inspired’ by headphones manufacturer Monster.
That doesn’t mean Monster had a hand in the audio tuning, but that Honor matched the sound profile that you’ll get with headphones from that brand. Annoyingly, though, there aren’t any headphones in the box, so we can’t vouch for any improvement in audio quality.
(However, you will get a set of headphones if you buy an Honor 9 from Three in the UK).
The screen on the Honor 9 is a 5.15-inch LCD display, offering Full HD resolution and a great color balance.
While we’re always going to be most impressed with the QHD Super AMOLED display on Samsung’s flagship phones, for the price this is a good choice.
There’s a good case for QHD (2560 x 1440) being too many pixels – the latest Samsung Galaxy S8 phones downscale the resolution of these super-expensive phones to Full HD to save battery out of the box, showing the fallacy of wanting QHD on a phone just for the sake of it.
That said, the Honor 9 doesn’t look like it’s got a truly high-end screen bolted on the front, with the icons and widgets looking a lot larger than you’ll see on other handsets.
It’s not a massive problem, but comparing the look of the LG G6 to the Honor 9 shows the difference in screen quality.
This issue is partly down to the use of EMUI 5.1, the overlay that Honor has stuck on top of Android 7.1. It’s a good user interface, and is getting better with every iteration.
It’s powerful too, with the more advanced user able to drill down and make pretty much any change they want to. Honor is keen to point out that you can perform 90% of the key actions of this phone within three taps, but that’s something most phones are offering nowadays as a slick user interface becomes of paramount importance.
The Honor 9 whips along well under the finger, thanks to having some incredibly impressive specs for a mid-range model.
The Kirin 960 chip is the flagship engine from Huawei’s research labs, and it’s combined with 4GB of RAM (or 6GB in some regions, such as Germany or France). As such, we didn’t note any slowdown when using the phone – although encountering sluggishness is a rarity when testing a handset these days.
That’s a powerful chip in there for a phone of this price. Yes, it’s not in the league of the chipsets you’ll find in the Samsung Galaxy S8 or HTC U11, but it’s not far off.
And when it comes to internal memory, if you opt for the 4GB RAM version of this phone you’ll get 64GB of internal storage, or 128GB if you jump up to 6GB of RAM.
There’s also a microSD slot that can handle up to 256GB of external storage if you fancy forking out for a fatter memory card to store oodles of media.
One thing Honor’s parent company Huawei has been fairly good at is squeezing a large power pack into a smaller space, so 3200mAh isn’t that surprising here.
There’s no word about battery management, but the EMUI that Honor is using for the 9 does pack some smarts when it comes to keeping things clean and optimized.
One of the key selling points the brand pushes with its phones is the fact that they continue to perform efficiently even months after purchase, and that can help battery life too.
Take into account too the lower-res screen than some other phones out there, and there’s a good chance the Honor 9 will have stronger battery life than rival phones around the same price point.
The camera on the Honor 9 is a dual-sensor affair, and it takes some pretty nice snaps. You’ve got a 20MP monochrome sensor teamed with a 12MP RGB (color) one, with the former adding clarity and contrast to the images the color sensor captures.
The pictures we took during our early testing looked nice and sharp – as usual, the snaps taken outdoors looked far crisper and more colorful, but interior shots also came out bright enough.
There are a plethora of modes to play with as well, and these offer some genuine fun: light painting is something people can enjoy if they remember to use it, while the demonstration we saw really showed off how much better the night mode can make pictures taken after dark look.
It’s interesting that such a mode isn’t baked better into the auto settings, but perhaps those prioritize speed over finding the perfect picture scene.
You’ve also got Pro mode to really play with the settings and get the picture you want, although this doesn’t seem to offer anything different to many of the flagships out there right now.
The Honor 9 can also do a portrait mode, just like the iPhone 7 Plus, where it will blur out the background behind the subject. Our early tests with this didn’t yield anything spectacular, so we’re assuming this is due to the phone running early software builds.
Again though, it’s impressive that the Honor 9 has a camera that’s this powerful and yet still flush with the body of the phone – we’re looking forward to trying it out against something like the iPhone 7 Plus to see if the cheaper price leads to a real degradation in picture quality.
It’s definitely time to start considering Honor as one of the top brands in the market, especially if you see OnePlus as a genuine rival to the likes of Samsung and Apple thanks to its handsets being so much cheaper.
The Honor 9 offers some very similar specs to the OnePlus 5, but for even less money… there are some rough edges hidden within this phone, but given that it’s nearly half the price of a Galaxy S8 it’s very easy to forgive them.
Is the Honor 9 even close to the fastest, most powerful handset on the market with the very best camera? Not at all – and given that this is Honor’s flagship some might question why it hasn’t pushed things that little bit further in terms of performance and features.
But that would be to utterly miss the point. The Honor 9 is a well-made, attractive and powerful phone that seems to outperform the price point it’s coming in at – this is the kind of the device that has the more entrenched players in the market starting to get worried.